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TL v67n1: School Librarian Perceptions of ESSA
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School Librarians' Views of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): Perceived Impact on Literacy Instruction Role and Career



The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in December 2015, and was subsequently lauded by many for its defined funding of K-12 school libraries. Although school libraries are greatly impacted by the new law, the ramifications extend far beyond explicit funding measures. This text-analytic and qualitative study offers an in-depth examination of the ESSA language to reveal several new provisions which may not be readily apparent to stakeholders. The study also examines the perceptions of school librarians with regard to the impact of the ESSA legislation on their multifaceted job duties, including the law’s explicit designation of librarians as members of the literacy instruction team. Twenty public school librarians from Tennessee were questioned through focus groups to survey their opinions regarding four relevant areas of inquiry identified in the ESSA document. Results indicate that school librarians are encouraged by the potential for greater collaboration with classroom teachers; however, they are concerned about the ramifications of ambiguity in the legislation’s language. This research points to the imperative need for state-defined school librarian instructional standards in order to combat ambiguity.


When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law in December 2015, the media lauded the legislation for its defined funding of K-12 school libraries (Miller, 2016; Peet & Vercelletto, 2016; Vercelletto, 2016). School libraries are indeed greatly impacted by the new law; however, the ramifications for these libraries extend far beyond explicit funding measures. As details of the legislation have emerged and states have begun interpreting the language of ESSA for their constituents, we became curious about attitudes and perceptions of local public school librarians regarding the law. Specifically, how do school librarians view the issues raised by ESSA, such as collaboration, instructional standards, professional development and training, and of course, library funding? Are school librarians inclined to support the legislation’s mandate, or are there certain obstacles that prevent their full backing of the measure? And in what ways will ESSA change the work of school librarians?

To understand the impact of this most recent educational legislation, we first provide some brief historical context. It is important to note that ESSA is not the first legislation to consider funding or other policy issues for school libraries; its foundations lie in prior legislation including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (2015). Title II of the ESEA legislation made specific funding provisions for school libraries. The legislation required reauthorization every five years, and during the subsequent reauthorizations ESEA occasionally received updates. Some of the more prominent updates occurred in 1994 and 2002. In 1994, changes to ESEA reflected the standards-based assessment movement and introduced the designation of “adequate yearly progress” to the K-12 vernacular. In 2002, ESEA was changed in name to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and shifted a great deal of autonomy from the states to the federal level. The present ESSA law reflects a change in name as well as some of the mandates from NCLB; for example, ESSA attempts to return some decision-making power to the states from the federal level (AASL, 2016a). Most significant, however, is the potential of ESSA to increase the instructional role of school librarians in the K-12 academic environment, a position which sharply differs from prior legislation. For example, in multiple places, the legislation refers to school librarians as part of the literacy instruction team; this is an important definition for school librarians who may not have previously experienced this level of collaboration.

Much remains to be seen regarding the practical implications of the ESSA legislation, however, as states must be the ones to interpret and mandate the specific implementations of the law. Different states are currently writing their plans for ESSA implementation. After these plans are submitted to the U.S. Department of Education between February and April 2017, the Department of Education will begin reviewing and subsequently approving them in May and June of 2017. The new state plans are slated to take effect with the start of the 2017-2018 school year (AASL, 2016a). Notably, ESSA does not specify two very important variables for school librarians, and instead leaves the matter up to state interpretation: ESSA does not define what constitutes an “effective school library program;” nor does it mandate that schools must be staffed with a school librarian (Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 2016). Although the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has released a position statement on these issues, including a definition of an “effective school library program” (AASL, 2016b), the AASL statement offers only recommendations, and states do not have to consider the statement as they formulate their overall state plans.

Literature Review

Educational standards guiding instruction in K-12 education are frequently in a state of flux. Changes in national legislation typically reflect the larger social and political movements at hand; a case in point is the accountability movement that preceded the No Child Left Behind legislation. Educational standards at the state level consequently must be revised to support the national educational legislation or social and political movements (Croft, Roberts, & Stenhouse, 2016). In all of these circumstances, the work of school librarians is often modified to accommodate the standards changes; yet such changes and their impact on the interests of school librarians, or the perception of the librarians’ role by other stakeholders, tend to receive little attention in comparison to the interests of classroom teachers or administrators.

While this study is the first time Tennessee school librarians have been asked to share their views regarding the implications of ESSA upon their work, limited prior research has examined the impact of other legislation and standards changes on school librarians. Krueger (2009) conducted a qualitative case study to examine the views of Iowa elementary school teachers as they prepared for the statewide restoration of school library programs upon a change in legislation. Krueger found the lack of school library programs in Iowa presented an academic disadvantage for students, but despite this finding, the classroom teachers interviewed could not articulate the value of librarians to the school instructional goals. The research indicated that soon-to-be deployed school librarians in Iowa faced an uphill battle in demonstrating their value to instruction to their classroom teacher colleagues, as well as the importance of their credentials. Kreuger concluded that without the state mandate, local school systems would not fully appreciate the value of school library programs to the greater state instructional standards, nor would they understand how to implement or sustain the new programs.

Another study demonstrating educators’ viewpoints in the face of changing school library program standards is the work of Mardis and Dickinson (2009). These researchers conducted qualitative focus group research to examine pre-service school librarian viewpoints regarding the updated 2007 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) standards, the Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Mardis and Dickinson found that their study’s population was ready to embrace the new standards, and viewed the new standards as being much more relevant to the role of school librarians than the prior standards.

Although not specifically addressed in the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), school librarians are important stakeholders in the collaborative instruction process mandated by this legislation. Despite IDEA’s directive, however, several researchers have noted that school librarians are often left out of the collaborative process. Canter, Voytecki, Zambone, and Jones (2011), for example, describe school librarians as “the forgotten partners” in the collaboration between special education and classroom teachers, while Small and Stewart (2013) report that librarians are often excluded from school-wide training on providing instruction to special education students.

Prior to ESSA perhaps the most significant contemporary piece of national legislation for school librarians was the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These standards induced a radical change in the work of school librarians in several areas, such as mandating a minimum requirement of nonfiction material focus (informational text) by grade level, introducing a staircase of reading comprehension complexity, and advocating students’ support of claims through cited evidence in the text (Uecker, Kelly, & Napierala, 2014). While an abundance of research exists on classroom teacher perceptions of the legislation (Burks et al., 2015; Murphy & Haller, 2015; Stair, Warner, Culbertson, & Blanchard, 2016), there is a dearth of research to ascertain the perceptions of school librarians.


The methodology of this study followed a two-pronged approach. We began with a text-analytic study in which we closely reviewed the ESSA legislation and identified four relevant areas of inquiry. Upon completion of the text analysis, we began the qualitative portion of the study. We questioned 20 school librarians during focus groups held in July 2016 at an academic library on the campus of a large public university in Tennessee. Librarians were separated into one of four focus groups that were organized by the relevant areas of inquiry we identified during the ESSA legislation text analysis. These four areas were:

  • School librarian licensing standards.
  • Instructional goals of school library programs.
  • Funding of educational initiatives (for school libraries as well as professional development).
  • School librarians as collaborative members of the instructional team.

Research Questions

We analyzed the data derived from the focus groups to answer several research questions:

(1) What are school librarian perceptions regarding the four areas of inquiry?

(2) How do these perceptions influence their likelihood of support for the provisions of the ESSA legislation?

(3) What supports and obstacles were identified in implementing the mandates of this legislation?


We recruited participants through a direct mailing sent to all school librarians employed by two school districts (N = 66). We selected the first 20 respondents for the focus groups; therefore, the study utilized a convenience sample.

All 20 focus group participants were female. Seventeen of the participants agreed to complete a brief demographic survey.

The demographic survey revealed that our participants had an impressive level of educational attainment, with 100% of the respondents holding bachelor’s degrees, 88% (N = 15) holding master’s degrees, and 12% (N = 2) holding a doctoral (Ed.D.) degree. Of the two respondents who did not currently hold a master’s degree, one was currently enrolled in a Master of Library Science program (see Table 1).

Table 1

Educational attainment of participants

Degree Percentage of Attainment Number of Attainment

Bachelor's Degree



Master's Degree



Doctoral Degree (Ed.D.)




We were interested to find that the vast majority of survey respondents (88%, N = 15) were alumnae of the university at which we conducted this study: 67% (N = 10) of respondents received their bachelor’s degrees, and an equal number received their master’s degrees, from the university. Four respondents received both of their degrees from the university; both holders of doctoral degrees (N = 2) were alumnae as well.

In addition to a high level of educational attainment, our respondents possessed a substantial level of professional experience (see Table 2). The 17 survey respondents presented a mean of 8.9 years of experience as school librarians. We were interested to find that 71% of the respondents had been classroom teachers prior to becoming librarians, and of those respondents, they held a mean of 9.1 years of classroom teaching experience.

Table 2

Professional work experience of participants

Instructional role Percentage of respondents Mean years of experience

School librarian



Classroom teacher




All of the respondents held a valid teaching license, with the exception of one respondent with a provisional license. The most commonly reported areas of endorsement were (in order from most to least frequent): PK-12 Library Science, English Language Arts, K-8 Elementary Education, Social Studies, Biology, History, Art Education, and Speech Language (see Table 3). Sixty-five percent of respondents indicated endorsements in multiple areas.

Table 3

Most commonly reported areas of teaching license endorsement

Subject/Area Number of respondents who reported

Library Media


K-8 Elementary Education


English Language Arts


Social Studies






Speech PK-12



Data Collection and Analysis

Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four focus groups. We conducted the focus groups simultaneously in separate conference rooms of the library, using Sony ICD-PX440 digital voice recorders to capture the interviews in their entirety. We saved the recordings as .mp3 files. We transcribed the recordings, and both members of the research team independently verified the transcription logs’ accuracy. Duration of the focus group interviews varied between 22 and 31 minutes; the typed transcripts ranged in length from 8 to 13 single-spaced pages.

We generated four individual transcription logs, or one per focus group, as a result of the focus group interviews. We entered the logs into the NVivo qualitative analysis software product for analysis of themes during the conversation. Thirty-four individual themes or concepts (termed “nodes” in NVivo) were identified from the focus group conversations. We then further analyzed and grouped the themes in order to better understand how the themes related to our research questions.


School Librarian Licensing Standards

Section 2101 of the ESSA legislation, “Formula Grants to States,” directly addresses licensure standards. Section 2101 (c) (4) (B) (i) says that local educational agencies may reform “teacher, principal, or other school leader certification, recertification, licensing, or tenure systems or preparation program standards and approval processes” (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, 129 Stat. 1919). In Tennessee, school librarians are licensed in the same manner as classroom teachers; it can therefore be hypothesized that this language directly speaks to the certification of school librarians.

One focus group considered a range of questions surrounding school librarian training and licensure (see Appendix for focus group questions). The consensus of the librarians was that their master’s degree programs had prepared them well for the demands of school librarianship, particularly in technology, library management, and materials selection. One participant said her program lacked practical skills such as lesson planning and classroom time management. Another participant made a comment regarding the value of a master’s degree:

As far as competencies go, I think it’s really important to have a good knowledge of instructional technology and not just being tech savvy, but using that in instruction. And so I think that’s why the master’s degree is important because it’s that step beyond just how to be a teacher. It’s more than that, because [it’s] being a leader in the school rather than just the person who is the teacher.

Regarding licensure, the group discussed the utility of provisional licenses in helping place educators who bring energy, but lack school librarian credentials, into schools with hard-to-fill positions. In Tennessee, school districts may apply for a one-year waiver to the teacher employment standards if they find a job applicant who is otherwise qualified but lacks all of the requirements for a state teaching license. In such cases, the applicant is hired under a provisional license for which the licensee is allowed a specified time limit to complete the remaining licensure requirements. These waivers are granted sparingly, and are typically for specialty positions or in school districts where it is difficult to recruit qualified educators. Many of these positions are located in rural areas of Tennessee. One of the 20 focus group members was currently employed as a librarian with a provisional teaching license, and this participant happened to be in this particular focus group. She discussed her provisional license within her rural school district in enthusiastic terms:

I’m on a provisional right now and actually came into it very luckily. I graduated from [the university conducting this study], but not with a teaching degree. And they built a new school in our district. Didn’t have anybody even looking at the job. They were going to take the elementary school librarian and split her between the two schools. I had been a library assistant at another school for eight years, so they suggested—somebody said, “Would you be willing to go back to school?” I said, “I would jump at the opportunity.”

Another topic of discussion in this group was the utility of multiple endorsements or certifications on one’s teaching license. One librarian related her experience of being able to pitch in when a classroom teacher suddenly quit: Because she had a high school English endorsement in addition to library science, this librarian was able to teach twelfth grade British literature one period a day. She was happy to be able to help in this regard, saying “I’m glad I was able to do that, in that particular situation; it made me feel like she [the principal] really needed me.”

Instructional Goals of School Library Programs

Section 1006 of the ESSA legislation, “Local Educational Agency Plans,” specifically mentions the instructional goals of school library programs. Section 1006 amends ESEA Section 1112 (b) (13) (B) with the directive that “effective school library programs . . . provide students an opportunity to develop digital literacy skills” (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, 129 Stat. 1855). It is important to note that this is the only area of ESSA that explicitly mentions a skill that school librarians should teach.

The focus group discussion of instructional goals produced a great deal of data regarding the hectic pace of the librarian work day, as well as the multifaceted job responsibilities. Many librarians pointed out the bygone days in which librarianship emphasized clerical duties; one librarian commented on the outdated job description as one in which “it was more of a shuffling of books, and shelving, and things being orderly.” Librarians agreed that their current job duties are far more diverse than in the past. Today’s librarians are teachers who in many cases are being asked to teach much more than just information literacy: The members of this group described having to teach vocabulary, creative writing, and social studies--in some cases for entire class periods and on a regular basis. Most of the librarians in the focus group were asked to help with Response to Intervention (RTI) remediation, which refers to the tiered level of instructional intervention in which students requiring additional help are pulled out of their regular classroom for a designated time to receive remediation in a subject area. Librarians largely viewed this “all hands on deck” approach as a reflection of the standards-based and high-stakes testing movements, in which more is now required of classroom teachers than perhaps the school day can easily accommodate. One librarian commented along these lines,

I think it has to do with . . . the way things used to be and what was expected with the standards and things that we’re doing now. They’ve just got a lot more stuff they’ve got to do so we’re having to offer more things.

Other librarians explained that by not having defined instructional standards for librarians, as set by the state, librarians are left open to doing whatever work their administrators assign. As one librarian commented,

I think because we don’t have the standards, administrators just throw in whatever they want you to do, like they think, “Oh we need somebody in the. . . .” Like I did Social Studies for first grade one year. I focused on Social Studies standards, which is fine and I’m good with that. But then I’m like, am I actually getting into them what I’m supposed to be doing?

Technology was also a frequent topic in this conversation. In some schools, librarians have the responsibility of maintaining mobile computer labs as well as deploying them to classrooms. Librarians also teach information literacy, to both their students and to colleagues. One librarian cited her colleagues’ strong engagement with the new database she introduced to them. These technology requirements were one of the most noticeable differences in the job from a generation ago; one librarian remarked:

I’m 24 years removed from my [MLS] program and so I’ve seen the shift. . . . For me, I guess, technology is something that, of course, 24 years ago was not the major focus at that time.

We asked this group, “Which academic proficiencies do your students lack?” Librarians cited the skills identified through RTI, such as math, reading, and writing; they also said that students (and their teachers) lack database skills. One librarian pointed out the new requirement under current state standards which requires students to cite evidence in answering certain types of questions generated though the reading of nonfiction text. She felt that this was a fairly new skill for students, and they would get better at it with practice.

Another question we asked this group was “What competencies do school librarians address better than classroom teachers?” This produced a rich conversation in which the group explained that they attend to the instructional needs for which classroom teachers simply lack the time (and in some cases, the training). There was a perception that classroom teachers assume that their students already possess needed technology skills, or already know how to select research topics and conduct research. Librarians, however, know that one simply cannot assume these proficiencies of students.

Because digital literacy is the only topic specifically addressed by ESSA as an instructional goal for school librarians, we asked the focus group to comment on this selection. The consensus was that they are already teaching digital literacy, and that an ESSA mandate would not be a dramatic shift for their instruction. Several additional points were made, however. One librarian said that if digital literacy was to be legislated by ESSA as their instructional focus, then the funding to support the requisite technology infrastructure needed to be codified as well. There was also a consensus that digital literacy should be used as a tool in teaching reading and writing, but should not necessarily be the end goal itself. As one librarian commented:

I don’t think it should override like reading literacy or even writing literacy. I think it should be meshed into it but not override it. You can kind of work it into your lesson.

Funding of Educational Initiatives

Several areas of the ESSA legislation mention specific funding initiatives which may affect school libraries. Section 2103, “Local Uses of Funds,” empowers local educational agencies to use subgrant money to support “the instructional services provided by effective school library programs” (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, 129 Stat. 1929); however, it is still to be determined how states will define an “effective” program. Section 2224, “Subgrants to Eligible Entities in Support of Kindergarten through Grade 12 Literacy,” is another important section describing school library funding measures. The language of this section allows for the use of grant money to support professional development opportunities for the members of the literacy instruction team, which specifically includes school librarians (129 Stat. 1942).

In discussing their library’s funding, the focus group members described scenarios in which their current funding was defined but also largely based upon the support of their principal. Librarians all agreed with this description as presented by one of their colleagues:

The county, they do BEP money, and so it’s based on a percentage of your enrollment. And so you get like X dollars and it changes from year to year based on your enrollment.

In discussing “BEP money,” this librarian is referring to a term the Tennessee Department of Education website (2016b) defines as follows: “The Basic Education Program (BEP) is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools.”

After this point of agreement, the discussion regarding means of library funding diverged and presented many differences on a school-by-school basis. Some librarians were allowed to supplement their funding with book fairs; others weren’t. Some librarians received money to pay for supplies; others did not. Some librarians had the financial backing of Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs); others had no PTO at their school. One librarian explained the windfall that arrives from school fundraisers, and described the inequity of being lumped in with teachers of subjects such as music and art:

See, what they do with us is classroom teachers get a higher percentage. We're considered special area teachers. So we get like half of whatever classroom teachers get. So if they get $500, we get $250.

If given more library funding as a result of ESSA, librarians said that they would purchase more books and technology. One librarian noted that “I would definitely try to get some more digital technology because that’s more accessible for everyone.”

Because ESSA stipulates that funding be allotted to “effective school libraries,” we wanted to consider the means by which librarians demonstrate their effectiveness. We asked librarians to describe the manner by which they are currently evaluated, and much like the school financing discussion, the answers seemed to vary on a school-by-school basis:

Librarian 1: If we don’t have test scores, we have to pick something, and one of them is high school graduation. And that’s where part of our percentage comes from.
Librarian 2: Ours comes from reading scores. We have no choice. We have to take the reading scores schoolwide.
Librarian 3: I think I’ve been taking high school graduation because we’ve been getting a good high school graduation rate.
Librarian 4: And see for us . . . I think if you’re a librarian, you have to take reading where music, or PE or art . . . , they get to pick.

As this conversation illustrates, school librarian evaluation metrics are highly subjective. Not only do these metrics vary on a school-by-school basis, but they can vary within an individual school as shown by Librarian 4, who has a different metric than other specialty area teachers at her school.

Many different focus group participants pointed out the inherent problems with the current system of evaluating school librarian effectiveness. In all, the librarians described a system that is imbalanced by design: Librarians are responsible for student literacy, but classroom teachers are not required to work with librarians. Librarians felt that any student success would be attributed solely to classroom teachers, and that under the current system of student evaluation it is difficult for librarians to prove their contribution to learning. They generally felt that a measure of effectiveness attributed primarily to test scores is unrepresentative. School-wide test scores do not capture the progress of the individual students with whom the librarians actually worked. This metric, moreover, ignores the problem of student turnover. One librarian pointed out that her “classroom” consists of nearly 1,000 students and questioned how she could be measured by the growth in reading scores for such a large population, whereas classroom teachers are measured by a much smaller number of students. Another librarian described how her work extends far beyond instruction because the management of the library includes collection development and other time-consuming but essential activities. These responsibilities are not adequately reflected by metrics such as reading test scores or high school graduation rates.

The focus group participants pointed out several solutions to their problem of faulty metrics for demonstrating effectiveness. Several librarians said that a librarian’s work needs to be somehow reflected in a student’s grade; for example, a library grade to be given by the classroom teacher during a collaborative project. Another librarian demonstrated the necessity of considering the whole research process in the student’s grade, not simply the final project, when she said,

People just like the end result; that’s the project. I’m trying to insert that into collaboration and things: “Please put a grade on those library days,” and “Let’s do a note-taking sheet” and all of that so that there can be some part of that grade coming from their library and research skills. Because most people just grade the end result, which is not me in [my school district].

ESSA stipulates that funding may be used for professional development opportunities, including those which extend to school librarians. If the focus group participants received professional development, it typically consisted of the same topics as classroom teachers. The participants indicated that very little librarian-specific professional development opportunities existed outside of the state professional organization’s annual conference. When asked what topics they would select for future professional development, the participants cited such areas as library advocacy, library budgeting, grant writing, and technology. One librarian mentioned needing guidance on how better to collaborate with classroom teachers.

School Librarians as Collaborative Members of the Instructional Team

Although Section 2224 of ESSA is important for permitting grant money to be used to support professional development, this section is also noteworthy for its specific inclusion of school librarians as part of the team providing comprehensive literacy instruction. Although this may seem like an obvious selection, school librarians have not always been treated as instructional colleagues in this regard (Canter, Voytecki, Zambone, & Jones, 2011). Section 2224 (e), “Allowable Uses,” formalizes this relationship with the provision that funds may be used for “providing time for teachers (and other literacy staff, as appropriate, such as school librarians or specialized instructional support personnel) to meet to plan comprehensive literacy instruction” (129 Stat. 1943). It is highly significant that the ESSA legislature mandated collaborative planning time for the literacy team, as well as the inclusion of school librarians on this team.

The discussion of current levels of collaboration produced some of the most robust data of all of the focus groups, as librarians had much to discuss regarding their successes as well as areas of desired improvement. One of the earliest identified points in this discussion was that school librarians often do not experience parity with classroom teachers. This sentiment was expressed during discussions of professional learning communities (PLCs) in which the school’s educators meet to discuss relevant topics and plan future instruction. Librarians recounted their experiences of not being allowed to participate in the PLCs because they had to provide student instruction during that time, so as to allow classroom teachers time in which to meet. As one librarian explained,

Say for instance all the fourth grade teachers get together and discuss. I’m their planning time, so I don’t really have the opportunity except through e-mail to work together with them.

While this problem is more acute at the elementary level, high school librarians also reported lack of inclusion in collaborative opportunities. Other librarians described in blunt terms their perception that they were not viewed as equals by classroom teachers:

Librarian 1: But I’m still having some challenges. There’s teachers in the building that, um, they don’t want me. They don’t want, they’ve already said that they don’t want me. They don’t want my help . . . that’s just kind of a personality . . . you know? It’s a personality thing where there’s still a lot of teachers with that mindset of . . . ; they don’t want to let go of control of their classroom.
Librarian 2: Or they might not see you as a teacher.
Librarian 1: Yes. Yes.

This striking conversation points out a potential obstacle to ESSA’s mandate for collaboration. At the same time, there is the perception that parity with classroom teachers can be selectively given when the school is short on manpower and needs additional instructional help. Remediation through RTI was one example where librarians said they were asked to assist in instruction and were allowed to be part of collaborative meetings.

Despite these discouraging experiences, librarians enthusiastically shared many examples to share of collaboration successes. Many librarians understood that collaboration was a process of relationship-building which can take years of effort before achieving widespread success. One librarian described her method of initially making connections with a core group of classroom teachers who subsequently touted her abilities to their colleagues; their testimonials led other classroom teachers to reach out to her for collaborative help. Other librarians encouraged taking a proactive approach through securing syllabi and/or scope and sequence documents so they could recommend library materials or produce collaborative lessons. Another librarian recounted an opportunity she had to speak to all of the classroom teachers at a beginning of the school year in-service. As she reported, having this face time to market library resources (including her willingness to help plan instruction) led to much greater collaboration that school year.

An offshoot of these discussions was the idea that collaboration takes multiple forms. Collection development can be an avenue to collaboration on several fronts, such as soliciting teacher input as well as demonstrating the librarian’s proactive approach to working together on a lesson. One librarian enthusiastically pointed out how collaboration is enriching to everyone:

We can learn a lot from them too. I’ve always thought of myself as being a new teacher and now I’m in year 14 and I’m not so new anymore. You think about that as an opportunity for us to say, “Well, what are you doing? Because, oh, that would be great.” You start researching it and you start figuring out, “Well, how can I be of use to them?” Everyone is kind of learning and growing together. If you’re the old dog, you’re learning some new tricks too!

Another librarian noted that students are an integral, but perhaps forgotten, part of the collaborative team:

Well that also leads to accountability of the student. Because if the student is not responsible for anything they’re learning during the time that you have them, they’re less likely to listen and pay attention. Whereas if there’s some sort of takeaway--an exit activity or something that gets turned in as a result of what you’ve covered--then the teacher’s buying in, you’re buying in. . . . And as a result, the students have to buy in. That really truly does make it collaborative. We talk about collaborative members of instructional teams, we’re talking about us and teachers, but the kids have to buy in to us being instructional members too. If they don’t see us as being knowledgeable and approachable then it’s just them sitting there.

The role of principals in facilitating collaboration was a critical factor mentioned by many focus group participants. Principals determine the composition of collaborative meetings such as PLCs, and they may relegate librarians to relieving classroom teachers for their planning time if they do not understand the instructional role of librarians. This disconnect can be partially attributed to the lack of state-defined instructional standards for school librarians, which leaves the definition of librarian job duties up to principals on a school-by-school basis. The focus group participants agreed that principals also set the tone for their level of collaboration through inclusion in PLCs and other instructional teams.


The focus group discussions presented a robust dialogue regarding areas of inquiry raised by the close reading of the ESSA legislature. These conversations have given clues as to the ease of implementation of ESSA from a school librarian standpoint, as well as supports and obstacles in implementation.

Research Question 1: What are school librarian perceptions regarding the four areas of inquiry?

Librarians seem largely satisfied with the current process of licensure in Tennessee. Provisional licenses, in particular, seem to work well to meet the needs of both emerging librarians and rural school districts that often have difficulty filling school librarian positions. In this respect, the librarians were concerned about any possible changes to the licensure process as a result of ESSA.

Digital literacy, the only instructional topic specifically mandated by ESSA, is something that librarians already integrate into their lessons as a tool to facilitate the teaching of reading and writing. Librarians expressed unease regarding the teaching of digital literacy as a stand-alone topic, rather than their current manner of integrating digital skills into the larger content. One major area of concern that arose in the focus groups was the lack of librarian-specific state instructional standards. Participants expressed much hope that ESSA would force states to consider the precise role of librarians in supporting instruction, because without defined standards, librarian job responsibilities are largely left to principals to mandate.

Principals also exercise a great deal of control over library funding. Although the focus group participants described a system by which libraries receive a minimum of funding on a per-pupil basis, use of many other additional sources of funding such as school fundraisers, parent-teacher organizations, and book fairs are ultimately at the discretion of the school’s principal. Participants anticipated that the defined funding of ESSA would increase the amount of money available for future materials purchases.

The ESSA legislation, of course, reserves this funding for “effective school libraries,” a term that remains to be defined by each state. The focus group participants described a current system of evaluation which lacks consistency as well as accuracy in terms of matching up with the tasks librarians accomplish. They proposed alternative metrics such as having student grades assigned to librarian-assisted deliverables.

And finally, librarians were encouraged by the possibilities for greater collaboration under the terms of the ESSA legislation. Specific mention in federal legislation as a member of the “literacy instruction team” is a big step for school librarians, some of whom cited examples whereby they do not experience parity with classroom teachers. An increase in collaboration, therefore, may lead to a change in perception of school librarian instructional abilities by other stakeholders such as principals and students.

Research Question 2: How do these perceptions influence their likelihood of support for the provisions of the ESSA legislation?

School librarians are highly adaptable and have seen instructional standards change over the years. When this happens, they adjust their instruction accordingly as they will with any new standards changes as a result of ESSA. The librarians questioned in these focus groups largely expressed enthusiasm regarding the possibilities for greater collaboration with classroom teachers, as well as inclusion in future professional development opportunities. All conversations indicated a great likelihood of support for the state’s future implementation of the ESSA provisions.

Research Question 3: What supports and obstacles were identified in implementing the mandates of this legislation?

Librarians identified many supports in terms of the potential for greater collaboration, professional development opportunities, and funding as specified by ESSA. Professional development and funding, in particular, were areas in which many of the librarians felt opportunities are currently lacking, and therefore ESSA gave them hope for future improvements. Perceived obstacles are largely a result of the absence of librarian-specific state instructional standards--confusion about librarians’ precise role, lack of parity with classroom teachers in collaboration and instruction, and a moving target of job responsibilities as defined by one’s principal. If the state specifies librarian instruction standards as part of defining “effective school libraries” per the ESSA mandate, these obstacles could quickly disappear.

Limitations of the Present Study

Focus group participants were limited to employees of two neighboring suburban school districts in the Middle Tennessee region. These two school districts serve a similar student population, but with some notable differences. School district 1 is a small district of nearly 8,000 students; 52.8% of the students are designated as economically disadvantaged and 8.1% are English language learners. School district 2 is much larger, with nearly 42,000 students, of whom 39.7% are classified as economically disadvantaged and 5.9% are English language learners. Tennessee as a whole serves nearly 1 million students in its K-12 public schools; of these, 57.9% are economically disadvantaged and 4.6% are English language learners (TDOE, 2016a). Therefore, school district 1 is more representative of the state average in terms of socioeconomic status, but school district 2 is closer to the state average in percentage of English language learners. Both of these factors, student socioeconomic status and English language proficiency, present unique challenges to instruction. In all, this data demonstrates that the student populations in the school districts where the focus group participants work differ from the average state student population. Thus, the views expressed in this this study therefore cannot be generalized to a larger population such as all Tennessee school librarians.

One other limitation is that the high percentage of alumnae in the focus groups (88%) may have interfered with participant ability to speak freely, particularly regarding questions surrounding their educational preparation. Group 1 was specifically asked “In which areas do you feel your preservice education best prepared you for your career? In which topics, if any, do you feel your education left out information or did not adequately prepare you?” Although participants were encouraged to speak freely, some members of the group may not have felt able to openly respond. An anonymous written questionnaire may have been a better method for collecting answers to the education questions.

Conclusions and Implications for Practice and Future Research

The school librarians questioned in these focus groups have provided a detailed description of their current working conditions, as well as given an indication of their likelihood to support the new mandates presented by the ESSA legislation. It is clear that some ambiguity exists regarding the definition of their work responsibilities. Should the state decide to clarify librarian workload through the explicit designation of librarian instructional standards, there could be many positive ramifications. One possible example is that teachers and principals may better understand the importance of school librarians to instruction; such a perception would likely increase collaborative opportunities.

If the state does not define specific librarian instructional standards, however, school librarians will need to seize the opportunities afforded by their new ESSA designation as members of the literacy instruction team. Librarians will need to leverage this role into greater collaborative opportunities, which will in turn help demonstrate their relevance to school instructional goals. Librarians will need to increase their advocacy of their work, and the importance of the library to promoting student literacy.

Future research should address the other side of the collaboration model; namely, the viewpoints of classroom teachers. What are their perspectives regarding school librarians? Do they see librarians as being open to collaboration? Do they perceive librarians to be equipped as instructional equals on the literacy instruction team? Collecting these viewpoints would be extremely valuable in creating professional development opportunities to facilitate greater collaboration between librarians and classroom teachers. 


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Appendix: Focus Group Questions

Group 1

Focus: School librarian licensing standards

Section 1112 of the ESSA legislation gives local educational agencies the authority to reform teacher licensure standards so that “teachers have the necessary subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills, as demonstrated through measures determined by the State.” At this time we are uncertain as to whether Tennessee will alter its current teacher licensure standards. Let’s discuss your thoughts as to the current licensing standards in Tennessee.

  1. What do you feel are necessary competencies for certified school librarians in Tennessee? Do any of these competencies vary by grade level/school (ex. elem., middle, high)?
  2. In which areas do you feel your preservice education best prepared you for your career? In which topics, if any, do you feel your education left out information or did not adequately prepare you?
  3. What is your opinion on the hiring of school librarians with provisional teaching licenses?
  4. Do you see advantages to maintaining multiple areas of licensure? If so, what would be an incentive for you to obtain additional subject areas of licensure?

Group 2

Focus: Instructional goals of school library programs

Section 1112 of the ESSA legislation hints at what the future instructional goals of the school library program should include. Let’s discuss the focus of your teaching in your library, and gather your thoughts on what school libraries do best in meeting the instructional needs of our students.

  1. Describe how your instructional focus as a school librarian has changed or developed over your career.
  2. Which academic proficiencies do you find children lack when they begin at your school?
  3. In your experience, what competencies do school librarians better address, more so than classroom teachers, and why?
  4. In section 1112, the ESSA legislation stipulates that local educational agencies “assist schools in developing effective school library programs to provide students an opportunity to develop digital literacy skills and improve academic achievement.” This language seems to prioritize digital literacies over other library initiatives.
    1. In responding to this mandate, will you need to make changes to your existing instruction? If yes, what would you change? And if no, how are you already meeting this mandate?
    2. What is your opinion regarding an instructional mandate which prioritizes digital literacies over other types of literacy?

Group 3

Focus: Funding of educational initiatives (school libraries and professional development)

Section 2103 of the ESSA legislation discusses funding of different educational initiatives, including the explicit funding of school libraries. While this is very exciting, the funding may or may not be with strings attached: the language specifically describes funding for “supporting the instructional services provided by effective school library programs”: what exactly constitutes an “effective” school library program? At this time the state Department of Education is not able to clarify this question. Let’s discuss what we as librarians find to be an effective program, as well as ways to demonstrate our effectiveness in supporting student learning.

Another component of ESSA legislation funding is in section 2224, which specifies funding of “high-quality professional opportunities” for personnel including school librarians. Let’s discuss what we would like to see in future professional development (PD) sessions.

  1. In what ways you feel school librarians currently demonstrate their effectiveness in supporting school educational initiatives? What metrics do you use to demonstrate your effectiveness in the library?
  2. Describe your current funding situation at your school library. Are you given a defined budget each year? Does this budget receive regular increases, or has it stayed flat? If you were given increased funding as a result of ESSA, what would be a priority for your library?
  3. Describe your school’s current mode of professional development for librarians. Are librarians included in schoolwide PD? Are librarian-specific PD opportunities made available?
  4. Which professional development topics would be most beneficial to you as a school librarian?

Group 4

Focus: School librarians as collaborative members of the instructional team

Section 2224 of the ESSA legislation discusses the possibility of subgrant funding in support of literacy initiatives. The language in this section frequently speaks of school librarians as being part of schoolwide teams to plan and develop “comprehensive literacy instruction.” These literacy teams are a wonderful example of the manner in which librarians collaborate with other educators. Let’s discuss your experiences as a collaborative member of the instructional team at your school.

  1. Describe ways in which you feel you may or may not have parity with classroom teachers in your school.
  2. Describe a recent instance in which you feel you had a successful co-teaching experience with a classroom teacher.
  3. How did you go about initiating a collaborative teaching opportunity with a teacher?
  4. Based on what you have learned about the ESSA legislation today, what do you foresee to be opportunities or obstacles to future collaboration with classroom teachers as a result of ESSA?


Karen Reed is Assistant Professor and Education Librarian at Middle Tennessee State University. She can be reached at


Mohammed Albakry is Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.


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